Catwoman soulstealer, p.18
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       Catwoman: Soulstealer, p.18
 

           Sarah J. Maas
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Selina had dealt with enough Harley Quinn types in the Dolomites. “No,” she simply repeated.

  Harley snorted but turned back to the TV.

  Ivy asked, perhaps deflecting, “Why do these idiots always run upstairs when the killer comes?”

  Selina shot Ivy a grateful look that the woman couldn’t see.

  Harley stretched out her tattooed, fishnet-covered legs on the flower-speckled grass. “Because they’re not good with explosives and don’t have an army of killer plants to bring with them everywhere they go?”

  Ivy chuckled and flicked Harley’s white-painted cheek. “Smart-ass.”

  Harley batted her away and went back to watching, though Ivy’s green eyes lingered on Harley for a moment longer. Tenderness filled them—and longing.

  Ivy noticed Selina’s attention and gave her a tight smile. But Selina only inclined her head. Secret safe. If Harley didn’t want anything beyond what they already had, for whatever reasons of her own, then it wasn’t Selina’s place to say that it was obvious Ivy felt differently.

  Ivy’s smile widened into a wicked grin. “It really is weird—to only call you Catwoman. If we guess at your name, will you tell us if we’re right?”

  “Maybe.” They’d never think of Selina. She asked before Ivy could start guessing names, “How long did it take you to make all of this?” She gestured to the lab, the teeming forest around them. The little fireflies, late for the outside world, that bobbed between the trees and flowers.

  “Two years.”

  “You live here even in the winter?” With the holes and cracks in the glass, it’d be brutal.

  Ivy shrugged, though she shifted on the moss couch. “I don’t have many other options. And I like it here. This is more my home than any other place.”

  Selina understood that feeling too well. Not that she’d ever really had a place that was solely hers, that felt like home. No, Maggie had been her home—if home could be a person.

  A familiar, old pain started to swarm her, so Selina asked, “No alter ego with a nice apartment and a cushy job?”

  Harley cut Selina a warning glare, pigtails swinging. “Why so many questions, kitty?”

  Ivy only said to Selina, “No. What you see is what you get.” She added a tad softer, “And I have no one…no one who would need to be protected. By keeping my identity secret.”

  Harley’s red-and-black-painted nails dug into the mossy couch arm, but she continued watching the TV.

  Selina noted the reaction. Reined in the words that sought to come out of her. I know—what it is to have that weight. To need this helmet. To keep them safe.

  She had no doubt that Harley wouldn’t appreciate it. Would see it as a threat toward whoever she protected with the fake name, the makeup, the costumes. Her mom, definitely. But who else?

  Ivy asked her, “What’s your favorite food?”

  Selina blinked. “I—don’t have one.”

  She didn’t. Food had been so scarce that she hadn’t been given the luxury of finding a favorite one. But at the raised brows they both gave her, she amended, “Pizza. I guess.”

  She asked, just because she didn’t know what else to say, “What’s yours?”

  “Raspberries.”

  “She’s vegan,” Harley said in a mock-whisper. “Don’t ever let her cook for you.”

  Ivy nudged her with an elbow. “You said you liked those seitan tacos.”

  “With the fake cheese and fake sour cream and fake meat? Mmm. Delicious.”

  Selina chuckled. “I’m with Harley on that one.”

  Ivy flipped them both off. Harley blew her a kiss.

  Strange—to sit here in this exotic wonderland, with these women, and just…hang out.

  Do nothing but talk and relax.

  It sounded pathetic, probably was pathetic, but she’d never had friends. The Leopards hadn’t counted. They weren’t affectionate, their loyalty having more to do with survival and protocol than anything from genuine feeling.

  And at the League, things like friendship hadn’t existed. Loyalty did—to Nyssa and Talia and the Cause. Fervent, bone-deep loyalty to the two women determined to bring this world to rights, no matter the cost.

  They had taught her well.

  And yet…It was nice, Selina decided as Harley and Ivy began bickering over the stupidity of the movie’s hero, to be around other young women, friends or whatever they were. Especially when they were so equally dedicated to not giving a shit.

  Selina opened her mouth to explain how she’d escape the killer in the film—rather, how she’d hunt the creep down. But she didn’t have time to.

  Something smashed through the ancient glass, rolling onto the soft, thick grass between them and the TV.

  Selina had a heartbeat to realize what it was.

  Grenade. Homemade. Lethal.

  Harley shouted, but Ivy moved, so fast Selina barely had time to contemplate lunging for the bomb.

  A flash of green, a snap—

  A thick vine that Selina had mistaken for a root in the grass plucked up the grenade and hurled it back toward where it had come from.

  It barely cleared the greenhouse before it exploded.

  Selina threw herself over both of the women as glass shattered and rained down.

  Then silence.

  “Shit,” Harley panted beneath her. “Shit.”

  They had to move. Had to get out now—

  A heartbeat later, something heavy thudded into the grass.

  The vine lunged again, but it froze.

  Even from a few feet away, the message written around the brick was clear enough:

  This was a warning. The next time, there will be more. You three bitches are done.

  A warning. The grenade had been a warning.

  Selina’s body, still sprawled over Harley and Ivy, didn’t seem to agree. Seemed to keep screaming, We need to run. We need to go on the offensive. We need to get outside.

  She took a breath to calm herself. Another. It seemed the other women were doing the same.

  “You hurt?” Selina asked them when her heart had steadied enough for her to stand and brush the glass off herself. None had pierced the suit, but the two of them…

  Ivy was bleeding. Long scratches down her bare arms and legs. Where Selina’s body hadn’t reached.

  But both of them were staring up at Selina. As if they’d never seen her before.

  “You jumped in front of us,” Harley said.

  “I’m in this suit” was Selina’s only answer. She pointed to Ivy. “We need to clean that up.”

  Harley straightened, noting the blood on Ivy, the glass. Her already pale face went ashen.

  Ivy gritted her teeth, hissing at the leaking wounds. “There—there’s some salve and bandages in the cabinet next to the sink,” she said. “It’ll help. I—made them.”

  Harley lunged into motion, half running toward the indicated cabinet.

  Selina stalked for the greenhouse wall behind them, scanning the dark. Nothing. Not a sign of whoever had sent that little bomb and nasty message. “This location is compromised,” she declared as Harley hurried over with the salve and bandages. “You need to move.”

  “Not until she’s cleaned up,” Harley said, falling to her knees in the grass to examine the long cut in Ivy’s pale leg. No indication of glass in the wounds, Selina’s helmet told her. She said as much. Harley ignored her, smearing that salve onto the scratch.

  By the time Harley reached for the bandages, the skin had started to knit together.

  Selina blinked. “How—”

  “Nature has an answer for everything,” Ivy said, still shaking. Harley just kept working, pigtails swaying with her steady, efficient movement.

  Selina said again, “That message could have come from anyone.”

&
nbsp; “Batwing?” Harley asked without looking up.

  “Not his style,” Selina said. Too cowardly for Batwing. No, he would have faced them directly and put them in jail alive. “And GCPD would have done a raid. This was some criminal lowlife not appreciating us encroaching on their territory.” Selina surveyed the beautiful lab, the haven Ivy created. “I’m sorry. You need to move. Now. GCPD is likely getting reports of an explosion in the park. And if someone tracked you here—”

  “She gets it,” Harley snapped. “Instead of talking, why don’t you help?”

  Selina stiffened, but strode for the moss-made couch, brushing off glass before she pulled off her gloves, dipped her fingers into the jar of milky salve and smeared some on Ivy’s upper arm.

  “It could have been anyone,” Ivy said as Harley finished up one leg and started with the other. “Falcone, for what we did to his men a few weeks ago.”

  Selina considered. “It could be. And that’s why when we retaliate, we’ll do it wisely.” Because that gleam in Ivy’s eyes…revenge was burning there. In Harley’s, too. The hateful message on the brick in the grass behind them seemed to glare as brightly as a neon sign.

  “Then what do you have in mind?” Ivy demanded, surveying her plants, the lab she’d made. Her home, Selina realized. This was truly Ivy’s home.

  A pang of jealousy went through Selina, odd and cold.

  She jerked her chin toward Harley. “I want names. Three names, for three of the Joker’s petty cohorts. Lowest of the low—the kind that are definitely behind bars.”

  That lethal gleam in Harley’s eyes sharpened. “Why?”

  Selina went to Ivy’s other side to tend to her right arm. “Because we need to send a few messages of our own.”

  “How will you get them out?”

  “Leave it to me. Just bring explosives that can take out concrete and steel.”

  Selina finished on Ivy’s right arm, and reached for her gloves on the other side of the woman.

  “What’s that bruise?” Ivy reached toward the hint of black-lining-purple just peeking out from beneath Selina’s sleeve.

  Selina smoothly slid on her gloves. “Nothing.”

  The Leopard tattoos.

  Talia had wanted to laser them off. It was the one thing Selina had defied her on. She’d given up everything she was, everything she loved. But the tattoos…Talia would have to skin her alive to remove them if she wanted them gone. Selina had told her as much.

  Talia had merely shrugged and drawled that petty attachments to the past would interfere with her ability to do what was necessary to further the League’s cause.

  Talia didn’t know the half of it.

  Ivy gave Selina a look that said she didn’t believe her, but Harley sighed, shooting to her feet, pigtails bouncing. “You can crash with me, Vee. Get whatever shit is most important, and let’s go.”

  Ivy swept a long look around the paradise of her own making—yeah, that was sorrow there. These plants…her friends. Her family.

  But a glass house was definitely not the place for someone to live when they were throwing quite so many stones.

  Luke knew he could be an asshole.

  But he’d really, truly been one last night, when instead of thanking Holly, he’d said some things that he really hadn’t meant. But he’d been pissed off, still raging after three weeks of hell, chasing after Catwoman and her cohorts.

  Three weeks and six robberies. Banks, jewelry stores…It was a shock there was any money or valuables left in Gotham City thanks to Catwoman and her merry band of criminals.

  Then there were the little explosions—cargo boxes at the docks destroyed, animals freed from the zoo and circus….There was no rhyme or reason to their attacks. Some for cash, some just for hell-raising.

  And worse than all that, Gordon had told him last night, right before Luke had gone into his boxing match: some criminals were even pledging allegiance to Catwoman. Thanks to those leaked photos in the papers. The footage of their unchecked rampage. A new Queen of the Underworld, the papers and petty criminals called her.

  So he’d gone into his fight mad. Unfocused. He’d won, but he had taken one hell of a beating for it.

  So when Holly had come in, when his body had been aching and his temper already on edge, and she’d casually mentioned her date. He’d reacted poorly.

  And he would have gotten up to apologize, but his battered body had refused. Literally refused to get up from that couch. He’d slept on the damn thing. When he’d awoken and knocked on Holly’s door the next morning, she hadn’t answered.

  He didn’t have her cell, or he might have texted her with a request to meet up—not an apology. He owed her those words face to face.

  But the day passed, and he spent it sleeping on and off, watching whatever football games were on TV. He staggered to knock on her door around lunch: nothing. Dinner: nope.

  If she was ignoring him, he didn’t blame her.

  Luke was still lying on the couch as night fell, wondering how the hell he’d get into his suit, right as the football game cut to live footage. Of Blackgate Penitentiary smoldering under the night sky. Luke swore as he read the headline on the bottom of the screen, then bolted for his bedroom.

  Three of Joker’s Henchmen Freed from Prison,

  Catwoman Suspected

  * * *

  —

  Selina strode into the small bar at the docks, Ivy and Harley trailing her. The Joker’s three henchmen, still in their orange jumpsuits, two steps behind them.

  Everyone packed into the dark, wood-paneled space went dead still. Even the raging rock music from the speakers cut out.

  She’d waited until now, weeks after that encounter at the bank, for a reason. Had picked this bar for a reason. Knew it was a hangout for people like Carmine Falcone, people who answered to many of the bosses in this city and came here to meet on neutral ground.

  The grenade at Ivy’s place had just propelled Selina to act a little faster.

  Cops didn’t come here. They didn’t dare. Even the crooked ones.

  Ivy and Harley stood tall beside Selina as she surveyed the room: the polished oak floors, the original 1800s tiled ceiling, the displayed photos of bosses both old and present, the globes of golden lights mounted on the paneled walls. For a group of criminals, they’d taken care to preserve the original character of the space.

  And all of them now stared their way, some with drinks in midair.

  Selina said to no one in particular, “Here are the rules.”

  Her claws slid free of her gloves, glinting in the dim lights. At her side, her bullwhip was a weight, begging to be used.

  Not yet. Not yet.

  “You stay out of our way, you assist us when asked, and the rewards will be…” She strode to the three chained men. A brutal slice of her claws had their shackles snapping free. One after another. “Plentiful.”

  The Joker’s henchmen grinned, rotating their wrists.

  “You decide to get in our way,” Selina said softly to those assembled as she prowled for the man seated nearest to them at the ornately carved oak bar, “you try to screw us over, and the punishments will be…” The man trembled on his red velvet stool as she gently ran a claw down his stubbly cheek. Then the other. She rumbled a soft laugh. “Plentiful.”

  She turned, nodding to Harley and Ivy.

  “Bitch,” someone spat from the back. Selina rolled her eyes.

  Yet—she knew that voice.

  Selina halted.

  The room was silent as a tomb.

  Her mask identified the speaker, though she didn’t need the intel. An aging, overweight Italian man seated at a table near the dartboard.

  Carmine Falcone.

  Precisely who she’d come to see.

  He still looked the same, still wore his too-tig
ht tailored suits, still had that slicked-back hair and sneer permanently on his pale face. The burst capillaries all over his hawkish nose. She wondered if the Leopards still answered to him. If Mika had broken free yet.

  Selina stalked toward him. Ivy murmured, “You’ve done it now, asshole.”

  To his credit, Falcone didn’t flinch.

  He only smirked at her and took a swig from his beer. No one had ever made him tremble. No one had ever defied him.

  There was a first time for everything, Selina supposed.

  She thumbed free her bullwhip and let it sing.

  One crack had Falcone’s beer shattered in his hand.

  The second had the whip wrapped around his neck, and him hauled over the table, thrashing like a lassoed pig.

  Four of his men leapt to their feet from nearby tables, guns out.

  Only to find Ivy and Harley with their own personal arsenals already aimed at them, the Joker’s henchmen flanking the women, eager for the fight.

  In Ivy’s hand, a blood-red flower glowed in the golden lights of the bar.

  I made a new model after the bank heist, Ivy had said when she showed Selina earlier. Flowers that were capable of taking out many men, not just the one closest.

  But Ivy hadn’t stopped there. Around her other hand: that vine. Its tip now equipped with slashing thorns.

  The man closest to Ivy was cringing at the swirling plant around her wrist. The crony before Harley had blanched at the small metal ball in her hand, painted like a child’s toy.

  Selina tightened her grip on the bullwhip as she stalked closer, Falcone trying and failing to free it from around his bulging neck.

  Selina swiped her claws down his back, opening up his suit and the checkered shirt beneath. A hairy, sweaty slab of flesh greeted her. “The East End is mine,” she said quietly.

  It always had been.

  And despite the whip around his neck, Falcone screamed as she ran one claw down the column of his spine, skin splitting, blood gushing.

  With a flick of her wrist, the bullwhip sprang free.

  Falcone was shuddering and groaning.

  Selina only said to him, “Be grateful that wasn’t your tongue.”

 
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